It took me a long time to track this down, so, rather than make you wait even longer for a full review, I am going to try my hand at liveblogging. I apologize in advance if this sucks. I’ve never done this before, but here is my initial impression of St. Vincent’s new album Actor.
“The Strangers” – I’ve heard this song several times, mostly because I listened to it on repeat for about half an hour when it was first posted on MySpace. It’s a subtly driving tune opening in a straight 4/4 but somehow seamlessly shifting into 3/4. I can’t even say for sure when this happens, it is that smooth. A good way to start the album, not too different from Marry Me.
“Save Me From What I Want” – The drums on this track are interesting. They sound more like a drum machine than anything else, but they are live as far as I can tell. Nice, close, dissonant harmonies on the chorus, “Save me. Save me. Save me from what I want.” with continual layering toward the end.
“The Neighbors” – I am getting the impression that this is going to be an album heavily reliant upon rhythm, especially rhythmic dissonance. At the outset, this sounds like a straight up waltz–until the handclaps (on every other beat, i.e. 1, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, etc.). The drums pick up this rhythm and run with it, further confusing the listener, until the two merge with each other into a fabulous 8/8 (that is 3+3+2/8).
“Actor Out of Work” – This song probably comes closest to the last album, stylistically speaking. I’d say it is most similar to “Your Lips are Red” only sweeter. Background vocals are a chromatically ascending sequence.
“Black Rainbow” – Heavy use of winds in parallel thirds in the intro and later instrumental interludes. The pulsing eighth note instrumental accompaniment is very reminiscent of Philip Glass. Moving into the bridge, Annie’s voice is doubled by, I think, muted horn in some seriously high register. Another chromatically ascending (ad infinitum) sequence closes out the track.
“Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” – Opens with a simple drum, bass, and chordal synth accompaniment. Strings enter in the background of the chorus in an ascending whole tone (I think) scale. Add winds in bridge.
“Marrow” – Another Glass-like intro. Annie is really starting to sound like Shara Worden on this record. And now I feel like I’ve been transported to some London disco where Steve Reich and Grandmaster Flash are battling it out in some kind of battle of the DJs. This has a very similar feel to the more rock oriented tracks from Marry Me.
“The Bed” – Only a few seconds in, and I already think that this is the track I’ve been waiting for. The metrical deception on this track hinges on hemiola and accented offbeats. It’s almost like Bjork. I hear something that sounds like a pipa. This may be the sarongi, though I have no idea what that is. Yes! This is definitely what I’ve been wanting. Brooding, orchestral, even operatic, with a touch of George Crumb’s Black Angels and lots of woodwind flourishes–I love this!
“The Party” – This great, pretty much straight forward trip hop feel with piano, drums, and vocals in the verses. Oh, there goes the 4/4-3/4 changeover again. I’m starting to wonder if Annie can manage to record a song without any metric shiftiness. And for the first time, I have actually managed to discern some lyrics: “I sit transfixed by a hole in your T-shirt”. I do wish I’d been given some liner notes with lyrics. Environmentally conscious record labels can be a bit annoying at times. A big choral/orchestral finale builds to the end of this number, though it’s really just the same stuff layered over and over again. More of a vamp, really.
“Just the Same But Brand New” – The title is certainly not descriptive of the album, which, stylistically, falls somewhere between Marry Me and My Brightest Diamond’s A Thousand Sharks’ Teeth. And here we are. We have been through some modulations and dynamic changes, but we have in fact managed to maintain the same time signature, though the drums do toy around with us for a moment when the full band first comes in.
“The Sequel” – Another wind intro. Such a beautiful ascending tritone motive over sustained perfect fifths creates some gorgeous dissonances, almost like Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, even. It comes in at under two minutes, really just a postlude, but in many ways the simplest and most interesting track of the album. What a brilliant way to wrap things up.
This is such an intricate record, meticulous in ways that Marry Me wasn’t and it is going to take several more listens and a visit to the website (apparently) before I understand it all. But that’s what I want (well the complexity anyway, I still want a booklet with lyrics). Will this be the album of the year the way many have hyped it? I can’t say yet. It’s going to depend on what we get from The School and if Venus Hum gets their new record out in time, but Actor is definitely in the running. For now, I have no trouble recommending, no, demanding, that you give it a listen.